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Person of the Year: Gov. Mike Parson

Missouri's 57th governor grew up in a southwest Missouri town with fewer than 400 residents. Now, he represents all 6 million-plus Missouri residents.

By Ettie Berneking

Nov 2018

Missouri Governor Mike Parson
Photo courtesy Governor’s OfficeFrom plotting his retirement plans to representing more than 6 million Missouri residents, Gov. Mike Parson has had quite the year.

Eight months ago, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson was eyeing retirement. His political career had stretched into its 25th year, and he’d risen from Polk County sheriff to Missouri lieutenant governor. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is probably a good place to finish,’” he says. “I’ve been blessed to have the career that I’ve had. So just finish this out and go home.” That was the plan. Then everything changed.

Barely a year into his first term as Missouri governor, Eric Greitens was thrust into the spotlight. An affair and allegations of blackmail and misuse of a charity donor list sent the Republican governor into a high-speed tailspin. Headlines threatening impeachment were rubber-stamped across the national media. Then on May 29, 2018, Greitens resigned. Three days later—as the state’s second in command—Parson became Missouri’s 57th governor, and plans of retirement and returning to the family farm in Bolivar were packed away.

Parson’s days are now spent traveling around the state where he meets with community leaders and hears from voters. Within his first 100 days in office, Parson visited 35 of Missouri’s 114 counties. Weekends spent back home on the cattle farm are rare, but Parson has always been a stickler about hard work. As he explains, long hours might be exhausting, but they lead to success. 

Parson, 63, grew up on a farm in Wheatland, a rural city in Hickory County home to just 371 people today. The biggest draw in town is Lucas Oil Speedway, which hosts everything from bull riding to monster truck competitions. Parson’s dad raised hogs, cows and chickens, and the family’s vegetable gardens kept them stocked during the winter while the wood stove kept away frostbite. “Back then, it was how you survived,” he says. “It was tough, but we had everything we needed at the end of the day.” 

By 1967, when he was 12 years old, Parson was helping out around the farm and hauling hay. At 14, he started working at the town gas station. “Apparently they didn’t know much about child labor laws,” he jokes. “I learned how to fix tires and pump gas and wash windows. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it.”

When he turned 19, Parson joined the Army and served two tours overseas. After six years serving in the Army Police Force, he returned to Wheatland. Life returned to normal, until one day Parson was fueling up at a gas station and learned the owner was looking to sell the business. The chance to become a business owner was dangling in front of him, and Parson bit. He eventually owned and operated three gas stations around town and expanded a little more with each purchase. As his gas station empire grew, so did Parson’s business goals. He and his wife, Teresa, began buying rental properties and farms and eventually launched their own cattle operation. The family still raises Angus cattle, though Parson’s new schedule has him joking that the cattle are “on the honor system” at this point.

Between the gas stations, rental properties and family farm, business was going well. Parson’s hard work was paying off, and his young family was growing. As he saw it, he was living the American dream: He had a successful cattle farm, a wife, two kids and a reliable roof over his head. Life was comfortable, and he wasn’t planning on making a big change. But Parson has never been one to shy away from opportunity, and around 1993, he was presented with one he couldn’t resist.

Missouri Polk County Sheriff Mike Parson
Missouri Polk County Sheriff Mike Parson and his brother
Photos courtesy Governor's Office Parson served as Polk County Sheriff from 1993 until 2005.

Political Rumblings

It was a normal day at work when the Polk County sheriff stopped by to visit Parson. The sheriff was planning on retiring and thought Parson should run for the position. “I had an opportunity to take a country boy sheriff’s office and make it into a really professional agency,” Parson says. There was just one catch: The sheriff’s salary was much lower than what Parson was making in the private sector. “I had to go home and explain that to my wife and kids,” he says. “After a lengthy conversation, my wife said that if that’s what I wanted to do, they would stand behind me.” His family has been by his side ever since.

Looking back, Parson says that first campaign was the most significant in his career. “When people are willing to put their trust in you, that’s a humbling experience. It makes you try to be a good public servant, and throughout my entire career, I’ve thought, ‘How can I work harder and transfer that into making someone’s life better?’”

Parson served as Polk County Sheriff from 1993 until 2005. After 12 years in law enforcement, he was ready for something different. Parson has never had the traditional five-year plan. Instead of dreaming of the next big title or the next salary jump, Parson thinks in milestones. “I’ve always tried to figure out where I’m going to be at 30 years old,” he says. “Where am I going to be at 40? [At] what point do I want to be able to retire?” Parson’s career has been as much a surprise to him as it was for his family back when he announced he was running for sheriff. He didn’t dream of being governor. He also didn’t plan to continue in his father’s footsteps on the farm. He knew he would work hard, but where that hard work would lead him was anyone’s guess.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson and family
Photo courtesy Governor's OfficeMike Parson is married to his wife, Teresa. They have two children and five grandkids.

Moving Through the Ranks

Back in 2005, Parson’s tenure as sheriff was winding down. He was still mulling over his next career move when he agreed to play golf with Rep. Ronnie Miller. Miller served three terms in the Missouri House, and term limits were about to take effect. Miller suggested Parson run for his position. “I had never thought about it until that point,” Parson says. But he ran anyway and won.

Parson served in the House from 2005 to 2011 and in the state senate from 2011 to 2017. Parson says it was his work ethic that won each election. “People raised more money than I did,” he says. “But I think we always worked harder.” He also made sure he had people on the team who could offer critiques. “I’ve been smart enough to know what my weaknesses are,” he says. “It’s not a real secret to success, but you need to have good people around you. The last thing I want is for people to slap me on the back and tell me how wonderful I am.”

In early 2015, Parson set his sights on the state’s highest political position—governor. But not long after kicking off his campaign, Parson decided the race was becoming too crowded. As he puts it, “Common sense kicked in,” and he changed his bid for governor to lieutenant governor that July. In his campaign ads, Parson is the same laid-back but driven country boy he projects in everyday life. He has a syrupy Southern drawl and looks as natural leaned against a tractor as he does in his starched dress shirts. Although the race switch was sudden, it worked. Parson was sworn in as lieutenant governor in January 2017. But barely a year into the role, Greitens was out, and Parson found himself moved up to the very position he initially ran for.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson speaking at his first general assembly
Photo courtesy Governor's OfficeMike Parson speaking at his first General Assembly as governor.

Leaving His Mark

Parson reached his 100-day mark on September 8. If he runs for a second term, he could hold the position for another six years. But right now, Parson isn’t thinking too hard about running again. He says he’ll have to wait to see how he feels and how the people feel. For now, he’s focused on his two big priorities: improving infrastructure and the state’s workforce development. “These are the two things I hear about all across the state,” he says. “Those are the keys to the future of Missouri.” When Parson talks about infrastructure, he has plans beyond improving roads and bridges. He wants improved broadband and utilities, things he says will convince businesses to invest in the state. He’s also focused on helping Missouri farmers and showcasing Missouri-made products and businesses. 

As lieutenant governor, Parson launched the Buy MO! Program, an economic development initiative promoting products grown, manufactured, processed or made in Missouri. “I never thought going to my feed stores or the grocery store or hardware store that I should be buying Missouri products,” he says. To put some government muscle behind the buy local movement, Parson enlisted the help of Southwest Baptist University’s Computer and Information Sciences Department, which assigned three students to design and create the Buy Missouri website. Once approved, Missouri businesses can slap a “Buy MO!” sticker on their products and have their business listed on the site for locally conscious shoppers to check out. Parson still gets a kick out of spotting these stickers. It’s one of his legacies that he finds “really cool.” Parson thinks a lot about what his legacy will look like, and he knows the reviews will vary depending on who you ask. Still, he’s hopeful: “I hope people will take a look someday and say I was a good public servant for the people of this state.” 

“The people I’ve met who are successful, you find in almost every one of them that work ethic and drive to do better. They’ll never be satisfied doing the same old, same old. It’s about figuring out: what can you do different, and what can you do better?”
— Gov. Mike Parson

During his stint in the Missouri General Assembly, Parson co-sponsored a bill expanding the state’s Castle Doctrine. Similar to “stand your ground” laws in other states, the Castle Doctrine, which passed in 2007, allows homeowners to use deadly force against intruders to their home and property. Parson’s other legislative victory is the voter-approved Missouri Farming Rights Amendment made to the state constitution in 2014. Parson was the Senate handler of the amendment and campaigned around the state in support of the ballot initiative. Essentially, the amendment guarantees Missourians the right to farm and ranch using practices and methods permitted at the time of the amendment’s passage. Supporters say it makes Missouri more welcoming to farming and protects the state’s largest industry. Opponents worry the legislation could harm the environment and property owners downstream of farmers. Parson understands that concern, but as a third-generation farmer, he has faith that today’s farmers are careful to be good stewards of the land. He also thinks government needs to butt out sometimes for businesses to thrive. “Farming is a business; it’s a way of life,” he says. “And I can tell you, most of these farmers are taking better care of the land.”

Not all of Parson’s legislative punts have succeeded. This past August, Parson stood in support of the right-to-work law that would have allowed private-sector workers to opt out of paying union fees. But in a move that many saw as a show of support for organized labor, 67.5 percent of voters rejected the referendum. The law was part of Parson’s plan to improve the state’s workforce development, but he’s not deterred. His hard work will eventually pay off. It’s just about finding new ways to approach problems. It’s a lesson he learned from watching the moves of other business owners. “The people I’ve met who are successful, you find in almost every one of them that work ethic and drive to do better,” he says. “They’ll never be satisfied doing the same old, same old. It’s about figuring out: what can you do different, and what can you do better?” 

Missouri Governor Mike Parson speaking to rural farmers
Photo courtesy Governor's OfficeGov. Mike Parson addressing a crowd of farmers at the 2018 Missouri State Fair in Sedalia.

On the Job

As governor, figuring out what he can do better has become a near daily task for Parson. The ideas and suggestions are endless, but he tries to process it all. He takes notes during his meetings and during his limited downtime traveling, and you can tell the steady flow of ideas is invigorating for him. But doing a better job is far from easy when you have an estimated 6 million–plus voters to represent. 

In 2017, Parson found himself in hot water with LGBTQ groups over an interview he gave with the Midwest Baptist publication Word & Way while lieutenant governor. Parson isn’t shy about his faith. He’s a devout Baptist, and his Sunday class and prayer group continue to be a source of energy and inspiration for him. But, putting his faith aside, Parson knows he now represents all Missouri constituents regardless of their religious beliefs. His record, as he points out, supports personal freedoms and protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2013, Parson voted in support of the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, a proposal to add employment and housing protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But his conviction that government should not infringe on personal liberties also meant he supported a religious liberty measure that would have allowed church officials and business owners to refuse participation in gay marriages based on their beliefs. “It’s tough,” Parson says. “Everything you do will matter in someone’s eyes, and you have to remember that. But if you look at someone’s career, it’s about who they are and what they stand for.” The way Parson sees it, he’s stood for individual freedoms, and he hopes that’s what people will remember.

Back home, Parson is less worried about his political moves and more concerned about passing on his work ethic to his five grandkids. “I believe all things are possible if you have the will to try and the faith to believe you can,” he says. “I tell them that they can do what they want to do. Always have a plan: a plan A and a plan B.” Parson says he’s never had to move on to plan B, but he has one. It might involve heading back to the ranch where the Parsons built a new home before Parson become governor. But if that is his plan B, Parson isn’t thinking too much about it yet. “Right now, it’s about doing the best job for the people of Missouri,” he says. “I love this state… For me and my wife, we truly have gotten to live the American dream. Neither of us started with anything. I think we started with car payments. But we’ve been able to work hard and obtain success and build on it from one stage to another. And it’s so important to me that someone else, the next generation, has the same opportunity as me and my wife had. Now what they do with that, I don’t know, but the key is for them to have the opportunity.”

Governor Mike Parson's First 100 Days in Office

Video courtesy Governor’s Office